James Robert Wills (March 6, 1905 â May 13, 1975), better known as Bob Wills, was an American Western swing musician, songwriter, and bandleader, considered by many music authorities one of the fathers of Western swing and called the King of Western Swing by his fans.
He was born in Limestone county near Kosse, Texas to Emma Lee Foley and John Tompkins Wills. His father was a statewide champion fiddle player. and the Wills family was either playing music, or someone was âalways wanting us to play for them,â in addition to raising cotton on their farm.
In addition to picking cotton, the young Jim Bob learned to play the fiddle and the mandolin. Both a sister and several brothers played musical instruments, while another sister played piano. The Wills frequently held country dances in their home, and there was dancing in all four rooms. They also played at âranch dancesâ which were popular in both West Texas and eastern New Mexico at the time the Wills lived in Hall county.
Wills not only learned traditional music from his family, he learned some Negro songs directly from African Americans in the cotton fields near Lakeview, Texas and said that he did not play with many white children other than his siblings, until he was seven or eight years old. African Americans were his playmates, and his father enjoyed watching him jig dance with black children.
âI donât know whether they made them up as they moved down the cotton rows or not,â Wills once told Charles Townsend, author of San Antonio Rose: The Life and Times of Bob Wills, âbut they sang blues you never heard before.â
New Mexico and Texas
The family had moved to Hall county in West Texas about 1913. As a young man âJim Robâ, as he was then known, drifted for several years, hopping freight trains and traveling from town to town to try and earn a living. In his 20s he attended barber school, got married, and moved first to Roy, New Mexico then returned to Hall county and Turkey, Texas (now considered his home town) to work as a barber at Hammâs Barber Shop. He alternated barbering and fiddling even when he moved to Fort Worth as he left Hall county in 1929. There he played in minstrel and medicine shows, and, as with other Texas musicians such as Ocie Stockard, continued to earn money as a barber. He wore blackface makeup to appear in comedy routines, something that was common at the time. âHe was playing his violin and singing.â There were two guitars and a banjo player with him. âBob was in blackface and was the comic; he cracked jokes, sang, and did an amazing jig dance.â Since there was already a âJimâ on the show, the manager began calling him âBob.â
Wills was known for his hollering and wisecracking. One source for this was when, as a very young boy, he would hear his father, grandfather, and cowboys give out a loud cries when the music moved them. When asked if his wisecracking and talking on the bandstand came from his medicine show experience, he said it did not. Rather, he said that it came directly from playing and living close to Negroes, and that he never did it necessarily as show, but more as a way to express his feelings.
While in Fort Worth, Wills added the ârowdy city bluesâ of Bessie Smith and Emmett Miller to a repertoire of mainly waltzes and breakdowns he had learned from his father, and patterned his vocal style after that of Miller and other performers such as Al Bernard. Wills acknowledged that he idolized Miller. Furthermore, his 1935 version of âSt. Louis Bluesâ is nearly a word-for-word copy of Al Bernardâs patter on his 1928 recording of the same song.
The fact that Wills made his professional debut in blackface was commented on by Willsâ daughter, Rosetta: âHe had a lot of respect for the musicians and music of his black friends,â Rosetta is quoted as saying on the Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys Web site. She remembers that her father was such a fan of Bessie Smith, âhe once rode 50 miles on horseback just to see her perform live.â (Wills is quoted as saying, âI rode horeseback from the place between the rivers to Childress to see Bessie Smithâ¦She was about the greatest thing I had ever heard. In fact, there was no doubt about it. She was the greatest thing I ever heard.â
In Fort Worth, Wills met Herman Arnspinger and formed The Wills Fiddle Band. In 1930 Milton Brown joined the group as lead vocalist and brought a sense of innovation and experimentation to the band, now called the Light Crust Doughboys due to radio sponsorship by the makers of Light Crust Flour. Brown left the band in 1932 to form the Musical Brownies, the first true Western swing band. Brown added twin fiddles, tenor banjo and slap bass, pointing the music in the direction of swing, which they played on local radio and at dancehalls.
Wills remained with the Doughboys and replaced Brown with new singer Tommy Duncan in 1932. He found himself unable to get along with future Texas Governor W. Lee âPappyâ OâDaniel, the authoritarian host of the Light Crust Doughboy radio show. OâDaniel had parlayed the showâs popularity into growing power within Light Crust Flourâs parent company, Burrus Mill and Elevator Company and wound up as General Manager, though he despised what he considered âhillbilly music.â Wills and Duncan left the Doughboys in 1933 after Wills had missed one show too many due to his sporadic drinking.
Wills recalled the early days of what became known as Western swing music, in a 1949 interview. âHereâs the way I figure it. We sure not tryinâ to take credit for swinginâ it.â Speaking of Milt Brown and himself working with songs done by Jimmie Davis, the Skillet Lickers, Jimmie Rodgers, and others, and songs heâd learned from his father, he said that âWeâd pull these tunes down an set âem in a dance category. It wouldnât be a runaway, and just lay a real nice beat behind it an the people would get to really like it. It was nobody intended to start anything in the world. We was just tryinâ to find enough tunes to keep âem dancinâ to not have to repeat so much.â
Wills is also quoted as saying, âYou can change the name of an old song, rearrange it and make it a swing. âOne Star Ragâ, âRat Cheese under the Hillâ, âTake Me Back to Tulsaâ, âBasin Street Bluesâ, âSteel Guitar Ragâ, and âTrouble in Mindâ were some of the songs in his extensive repertory.â
After forming a new band, The Playboys, and relocating to Waco, Wills found enough popularity there to decide on a bigger market. They left Waco in January of 1934 for Oklahoma City. Wills soon settled the renamed Texas Playboys in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and began broadcasting noontime shows over the 50,000 watt KVOO radio station. Their 12:30-1:15 p.m. MondayâFriday broadcasts became a veritable institution in the region. Nearly all of the daily (except Sunday) shows originated from the stage of Cainâs Ballroom. In addition, they played dances in the evenings, including regular ones at the ballroom on Thursdays and Saturdays. By 1935 Wills had added horn, reed players and drums to the Playboys. The addition of steel guitar whiz Leon McAuliffe in March, 1935 added not only a formidable instrumentalist but a second engaging vocalist. Wills himself largely sang blues and sentimental ballads.
With its jazz sophistication, pop music and blues influence, plus improvised scats and wisecrack commentary by Wills, the band became the first superstars of the genre. Milton Brownâs tragic and untimely death in 1936 had cleared the way for the Playboys.
Willsâ 1938 recording of âIda Redâ served as a model for Chuck Berryâs decades later version of the same song â âMaybelleneâ. In 1940 âNew San Antonio Roseâ sold a million records and became the signature song of The Texas Playboys. The songâs title referred to the fact that Wills had recorded it as a fiddle instrumental in 1938 as âSan Antonio Roseâ. By then, the Texas Playboys were virtually two bands: one a fiddle-guitar-steel band with rhythm section and the second a first-rate big band able to play the dayâs swing and pop hits as well as Dixieland.
In 1940 Wills, along with the Texas Playboys, co-starred with Tex Ritter in Take Me Back to Oklahoma. Other films would follow. In late 1942 after several band members had left the group, and as World War II raged, Wills joined the Army, but received a medical discharge in 1943.
Wills also appeared in The Lone Prairie (1942), Riders of the Northwest Mounted (1943), Saddles and Sagebrush (1943), The Vigilantes Ride (1943), The Last Horseman (1944), Rhythm Round-Up (1945), Blazing the Western Trail (1945), and Lawless Empire (1945). According to one source, he appeared in a total of 19 films.
After leaving the Army in 1943 Wills moved to Hollywood and began to reorganize the Texas Playboys. He became an enormous draw in Los Angeles, where many of his Texas, Oklahoma and regional fans had also relocated during the Great Depression and World War II in search of jobs. Monday through Friday the band broadcast from 12:01 to 1:00 p.m. over KMTR-AM (now KLAC) in LA. They also played regularly every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night at the Mission Beach Ballroom in San Diego.
He commanded enormous fees playing dances there, and began to make more creative use of electric guitars to replace the big horn sections the Tulsa band had boasted. For a very brief period in 1944 the Wills band included twenty-three members., and around mid year he toured Northern California and the Pacific Northwest with 21 pieces in the orchestra. Billboard reported that Wills outgrossed Harry James, Benny Goodman, âboth Dorsies, et al.â at Civic Auditorium in Oakland, California, in January 1944.
While on his first cross-country tour, he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and defied that conservative showâs ban on using drums of any sort.
In 1945 Willsâ dances were outdrawing those of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, and he had moved to Fresno, California. Then in 1947 he opened the Wills Point nightclub in Sacramento and continued touring the Southwest and Pacific Northwest from Texas to Washington State. While based in Sacramento his radio broadcasts over 50,000 watt KFBK were heard all over the West.
Famous swing orchestras in California realized that many of their followers were leaving to dance to Bob Willâs Western swing. Because he was in such demand, some places booked Wills any time he had an opening, regardless of how undesirable the date. The manager of a popular auditorium in the LA Basin town of Wilmington, California: âAlthough Monday night dancing is frankly an experiment it was the only night of the week on which this outstanding band could be secured.â
During the postwar period, KGO radio in San Francisco syndicated a Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys show recorded at the Fairmont Hotel. Many of these recordings survive today as the Tiffany Transcriptions, and are available on CD. They show off the bandâs strengths significantly, in part because the group was not confined to the three-minute limits of 78 RPM discs. They featured superb instrumental work from fiddlers Joe Holley and Louis Tierney, steel guitarists Noel Boggs and Herb Remington, guitarists Eldon Shamblin and Junior Barnard and electric mandolinist-fiddler Tiny Moore. The original recorded version of Willsâ âFaded Loveâ, appeared on the Tiffanys as a fairly swinging instrumental unlike the ballad it became when lyrics were added in 1950.
Wills and the Texas Playboys played dances throughout the West to more than 10,000 people every week. They held dance attendance records at Jantzen Beach in Portland, Oregon; Santa Monica, California, and at the Oakland (California) Auditorium, where they drew 19,000 people in two nights. Wills also broke an attendance record of 2,100 previously held by Jan Garbner at the Armory in Klamath Falls, Oregon, by attracting 2,514 dancers.
Actor Clint Eastwood recalled seeing Wills when he was 18 or 19 (1948 or 1949) and working at a pulp mill in Springfield, Oregon.
Appearances at the Bostonia Ballroom in San Diego continued throughout the 1950s.
Still a binge drinker, Wills became increasingly unreliable in the late 1940s, causing a rift with Tommy Duncan (who bore the brunt of audience anger when Willsâs binges prevented him from appearing). It ended when he fired Duncan in the fall of 1948.
Having lived a lavish lifestyle in California, in 1949 Wills moved back to Oklahoma City, then went back on the road to maintain his payroll and Wills Point. An even more disastrous business decision came when he opened a second club, the Bob Wills Ranch House in Dallas, Texas. Turning the club over to managers later revealed to be dishonest left Wills in desperate financial straits with heavy debts to the IRS for back taxes that caused him to sell many assets including, mistakenly, the rights to âNew San Antonio Rose.â It wrecked him financially.
In 1950 Wills had two Top Ten hits, âIda Red Likes the Boogieâ and âFaded Loveâ. After 1950 radio stations began to increasingly specialize in one form or another of commercially popular music. Wills did not fit into the popular Nashville country and western stations, although he was usually labeled âcountry and westernâ. Neither did he fit into the pop or middle of the road stations, although he played a good deal of pop music, and was not accepted in the pop music world.
He continued to tour and record through the 1950s into the early 1960s, despite the fact that Western swingâs popularity, even in the Southwest, had greatly diminished. Bob could draw âa thousand people on Monday night between 1950 and 1952, but he could not do that by 1956. Entertainment habits had changed.â
On Willsâ return to Tulsa late in 1957, Jim Downing of the Tulsa Tribune wrote an article headlined âWills Brothers Together Again â Bob Back with Heavy Beatâ. The article quotes Wills as saying, âRock and Roll? Why, man, thatâs the same kind of music weâve been playinâ since 1928!â¦We didnât call it rock and roll back when we introduced it as our style back in 1928, and we donât call it rock and roll the way we play it now. But itâs just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time. Itâs the same, whether you just follow a drum beat like in Africa or surround it with a lot of instruments. The rhythmâs whatâs important.â
Even a 1958 return to KVOO, where his younger brother Johnnie Lee Wills had maintained the familyâs presence, did not produce the success he hoped for. He appeared twice on ABC-TVâs Jubilee USA and kept the band on the road into the 1960s. After two heart attacks, in 1965 he dissolved the Texas Playboys (who briefly continued as an independent unit) to perform solo with house bands. While he did well in Las Vegas and other areas, and made records for the Kapp Records label, he was largely a forgotten figure â even though inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1968. A 1969 stroke left his right side paralyzed, ending his active career.
The May 26, 1975 issue of TIME (Milestones section) read: âDied. Bob Wills, 70, âWestern Swingâ bandleader-composer; of pneumonia; in Fort Worth. Wills turned out dance tunes that are now called country rock, introducing with his Texas Playboys such C & W classics as Take Me Back to Tulsa and New San Antonio Roseâ.
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